The entrance first, and it is feathered.

The entrance first, and it is feathered.

Christina Dunhill’s debut pamphlet Blackbirds is currently winging its way around the country. It is a beautiful little thing, full of myth and magic, presented in a style that’s anything but airy-fairy. Her poems have been popping up in various UK magazines for years, notably The Rialto, so her name is already a familiar one.

This poet shifts the centre constantly. You’re never quite sure where you are with her. That sounds like poetry to make you sea-sick, but that would be quite the wrong impression. What I’m trying to describe is the sense of unpredictability. Oddly different aspects of life are approached from unexpected angles. She keeps you on your toes, like a hall of mirrors. My tropes are not in the least up to the job. You need to read her and see.

But there is also a death, one that has grieved me very much. When I first started publishing, it never occurred to me that this would be part of it—that one would develop emotional attachments to poets, not just as writers but as people, as members of an extended family. Many of them are what Ruth Pitter called “blood-relations of the mind”. The risk of all such attachment is loss.

The first HappenStance poet to die was Olive Dehn. She was marvellous, an absolutely unique poet, and I loved her, but she was in her nineties and I think she was ready to go. Cliff Ashby, who died more recently, had also done his time: it was a gradual dwindling and a graceful exit. He made a terrific old man.

But the latest loss is Tom Duddy, who was not so old—not old at all—and he was not expecting to die just now. He was diagnosed with cancer just before Christmas and had treatment that was intended to prolong his life. It didn’t work.

In his last months, he was working intensely on poetry and there is a body of work—some of it quite remarkable—enough to make another book. He writes as though he is dying, as though each moment contains the secret of life. We should all write like this—if we only could, if we only could.

Tom’s first collection, in 2006, was a HappenStance pamphlet—The Small Hours—I have run out of these, so alas no use trying to order one. That pamphlet came about because Tom’s poems were featured in a Magma showcase, and I was so struck with them that I wrote to him, via Magma, and asked whether he would like to send me poems with a view to pamphlet publication. This is the only time I have ever done this.

What was so striking about Tom’s poems? It is hard to explain. What he does is never in your face or splashy. He is an understater. But he can see things in life— that mysterious process we are a part of till we stop—that I can’t pick up any other way. He is irreplaceable.

He has some paragraphs worth reading about his poetic principles on his website, and you may notice that the information there is much greater than on his poet’s page in the HappenStance home site. He was not a man who easily spoke about himself and he found the web copy difficult to assemble: he felt he should do it to help find readers for his book. Tom’s default mode was reticence.

His first full collection was published by Arlen House, a small Irish imprint. The Hiding Place (2011) included many of the poems from the original pamphlet but also some new ones, poems with mysterious and evocative power, drawn from the most ordinary situations. (I reviewed the book on GoodReads here and Matthew Stewart discusses it here.)

In Duddy’s writing, ordinary situations are drenched in mystery, with himself, most secretive of persons, at the heart of all awareness. Here, for example, is ‘Garden Party’:

At some strange distance, the good children
are playing among the metal chairs
in the patio; laugh after laugh
goes up from a group that still loiters
by the dead barbecue; old old friends
look well pleased to assemble again
on awkward ground under the sycamore;
the evening sun leaves all impressions

at the edge of consciousness; and an air
of lateness shimmies in the trees.
I almost reach across the table
towards the woman opposite,
almost speak warmly to her,
almost give myself away for once.

The mystery is flagged by the word ‘strange’ in the first line, and then everything teeters. The group ‘still loiters’ but is about to go. The barbecue is ‘dead’. The ground is ‘awkward’. The light and the atmosphere is ‘at the edge of consciousness’ where anything might be true. That ‘air / of lateness’ suggests a time out of time, a time when something other might happen. Everything is ‘almost’ – the word he repeats three times. And in that moment when he almost gives himself away (but doesn’t), he gives himself away.

One of the poems from this book, ‘The Touch‘, was included in The Forward Book of Poetry, 2011 and you can hear him reading the poem here.

Tom Duddy is gone from the earth. He is alive in that poem and many others. He could, and can, see things I can’t see, which is why I find his poems indispensable. There will be another book, though not yet. Please, please look out for it, and in the meantime, read what is already in print.


Usually I don’t go, but this time I went.

Usually I don’t go, but this time I went.

Things happen in Scotland, and it’s possible to get there and back in a day. Things happen in London, and it means asking friends for a bed for at least one night. It means effectively three days away from the business. Then there’s planes or trains, and Oystercardless tubes or busses that stop and ditch their passengers. It’s a trip to a foreign city where I’m just the little iron on the Monopoly board, with no houses and no prospect of a hotel.

Nonetheless, Charles Boyle’s invitation to take part in his CB Editions Bookfair was so warmly extended, I thought I’d do it. Just for once.

Three times now I’ve missed Book Fairs I very much wanted to get to. There have been, for example, two Leicester BookFairs organized by Ross Bradshaw of Five Leaves Press, (Ross is also author of one of my PoemCards) in the States of Independence series, and now there’s States of Independence (West), next Saturday in Birmingham. At these events, Robin Vaughan-Williams has been a noble HappenStance author in independent residence, and he’ll be flying the flag, as they say, on the 8th (Gregory Leadbetter is going along too).

I have, however, managed to take part in a number of the colourful poetry pamphlet fairs organized by Scottish Pamphlet Poetry, but there’s a special attraction about being part of a book fair. And while on that subject, HappenStance will be at the splendid By Leaves We Live annual Poetry Publishing Fair at the Scottish Poetry Library at the end of this month, and I’ll be doing on of the short talks (in our case a bit of a conversation) with Gerry Cambridge.

But back to Charles Boyle’s CB Editions event last week (which has been blogged about a lot. Already I feel I should have prefaced all of this with a hyperlink alert). It was held on a beautiful day – not quite as hot as it’s been in London this weekend, but still sunny and warm, so people could sit and chat outside at the various venues along the little street that calls itself Exmouth Market.  You don’t do that in Scotland in September!

The book fair itself was held in exactly the sort of church hall you would find anywhere in the UK. Slightly dilapidated but spacious, with a kitchen at the back where worthy ladies must have made teas for generations.

Book Fair (early)

There were Christmas lights (unlit, alas) trailing from the roof beams, and tables assembled all round the edges of the hall. On the stage at the front, Michael Horowitz did a weird and wonderful introduction to events, accompanied by kazoo and his own personal sound effects. Later, a singer from the street outside came in and did a few songs. Upstairs, there was a little room in which readings went on throughout the day, non-stop – and although I only made it to a couple of these, I can confirm it was a friendly little room and I should like to have heard a whole lot more of them. Not a bad place to read either, despite interesting noises from the street outside – crashes of a million bottles landing somewhere, the street singer resonating up through the window, the chiming of a clock at regular intervals.

Fiona Moore (who is to be a HappenStance poet in 2013) has described it all beautifully in her Displacement blog. I hadn’t met her before, and one of the lovely things about this day was having the opportunity to hobnob with poets, who obligingly stepped off the paper into human form. Jon Stone and Kirsty Irving, for example, were sitting beside me for most of the day being Sidekick Books, but they also read in the HappenStance relay-race slot. Kirsty has her own account of events here.

Tim Love took over the stall while our reading was going on upstairs – Tim was around for most of the day. Marion Tracy arrived (she is a forthcoming HappenStancer) and Christina Dunhill (ditto). And Peter Daniels and D A Prince and Lorna Dowell and Clare Best and Mike Loveday. Oh, and Matt Merritt was there too — here is his blog on the subject: he now, of course, represents Nine Arches (opportunity to meet Jane Commane for the first time). And Chrissy Williams, who will also metamorphose into a HappenStance pamphlet in 2012, organized  the programme of readings and was around to greet us. There was even Geoff Lander, my old friend from university, living proof that all roads meet in the end. He was a chemistry student once – now he’s turned to verse! Oh and Nancy Campbell, whom I’ve wanted to meet for years, and who brought me some beautiful postcards celebrating her newly launched How to say ‘I love you’ in Icelandic. A joy.

HappenStance poets reading

So there was something of a party spirit in the air. In fact, several parties were going on in various parts of the hall. Here is Tom Chivers’ account, for example. Katy Evans-Bush calls it a Renaissance. Ken Edwards on Reality Street gives it a mention. Honestly everybody who was anybody was there. (Well, you could be forgiven for thinking so. Some of them were actually at The London Art Book Fair, as mentioned in the Sphinx feature about Sylph Editions posted recently. In fact, as I travelled back to Vauxhall on the tube, the man sitting opposite me had a huge transparent carrier bag full of publications from that very event).

Other blogger accounts included Sue Guiney (who also read — and I actually HEARD her read, with particular pleasure), and Hilaireinlondon. Rack Press, who was there, has a paragraph about it too. And there’s Andrew Bailey, whom I didn’t quite meet. There were people matching faces with FaceBook friends, one of today’s most amusing party games. Why are people never the same height they seem to be on FaceBook?

The previous night, Chris H-E had launched the new Salt Best British Poetry 2011, and many of the poets in that volume were around, as well as Roddy Lumsden, the noble editor. It was pretty busy, especially between about 11.30 and 2.30.  Chris blogged about the event afterwards – a lovely commentary. He calls Charles Boyle “deliciously grumpy and adversarial”, a great compliment. I wish somebody would call me that. It’s so much better than “the Delia Smith of poetry”.Charles Boyle

I feel I should say Charles has been very charming to me and not at all grumpy.  His own CB Editions books were modestly displayed on a stylish little bookrack to my right, and although this corner was not always manned, people kept coming and buying his attractive books. We slid notes into the money pouch of our rival without demur. He is running a fascinating book enterprise. His books are worth buying.

Chris  Hamilton-Emery talks in his blog about the dark side of such events, how they “can be downright depressing experiences when a (seriously) amateur world collides with different levels of professional delusion and, well, trajectories of intention: from the technically proficient to the anarchically crappy.” How true this is!  I was worried it might even be true of this event, but happily it was not. There was an air of cheery professionalism about it all. Fellow publishers were, as I have found ever since I commenced on this crazy venture, undeniably friendly.

And yes, people did spend money, though not, at my table, as much as Chris suggests (“. . . people came in droves. Really. Not only did they come, they spent money; lots of money.”) A great many of the people in the hall, so far as I could tell, were poets, or aspiring poets. It would have been nice to know how many could have been classed as common readers, the species that poetry so very much needs to win back. And poets are not, in my experience, particularly wealthy. In fact, I worry periodically that poets from my own list are impoverishing themselves trying to support my enterprise: about £120.00 worth of HappenStance publications disappeared on the day, which is not half bad for these events. But I think a number of my own poets bought stuff (they are such nice people)!

So from the money side of things, going to the event did not – could not –  be rational. There was the fee for the taking of a table, there was the (in my case) plane and train fares, the car parking in Edinburgh, the tubes and so on. And most of all, the time investment.

But the meeting of the poets, the taking part in the hubbub, the learning experience –  these factors made it worth it. I wish I had spent more time talking to publishers: I didn’t really manage that, though it was great to meet Andy Ching of Donut Press, whose table was near mine. I wanted to talk to others, didn’t really have time – not even to talk to my own publisher, John Lucas, who was sitting at a Shoestring Press table himself.

Back to country mouse existence now. . . .